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The Age of Anxiety

After 1919, Europe was dazed and confused like a boxer at the end of a terrible match. People were faced with the unsettling task of putting their lives back together. However, it became clear to everyone in Europe that things were never going to be the same as they were before the wars. The wars changed everything. The European economy had fallen to pieces, the politics of Europe had changed, and even the map of Europe had been redrawn. People were amazed at the destruction of the war and deeply disturbed that humans could inflict such destruction and suffering on humanity. These deeply troubling psychological issues manifested themselves in many areas of European life after the war and remained present in Europe arguably until after World War II.

Unsettling Philosophy

Intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had delivered ominous warnings even before the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. One of the darkest nineteenth-century philosophers was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The German philosopher emphasized in his works the fact that Western society has always repressed the individual and discouraged creativity. Nietzsche believed that religion, particularly Christianity, did the same thing. He argued that religion was for the meek, the weak, and the masses who were unable to think for themselves. Nietzsche argued that religion led humans to “slave morality” or the willingness to submit the individual will to the strong. The individual as manifested in the ubermench, or superman, should be the goal of man. Man should not be satisfied with being part of the herd. Nietzschean thought, combined with aggressive German nationalism, contributed to the rise of a new Germany in the interwar years under Hitler (see Chapter 21).

Continental Quotes

Nietzche's most infamous quote is “God is dead." Often misinterpreted, Nietzsche meant that according to his observations of nineteenth- century Europe, God effectively had been killed or rendered obsolete by Christians because he no longer remained important to them.

Another philosopher who questioned rationality was the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Wittgenstein promoted logical empiricism. He maintained that anything that cannot be analyzed through philosophical study of the language that expresses it is a waste of time. In other words, statements about abstractions like happiness, liberty, or the existence of God are just as abstract because they cannot be expressed logically or mathematically. Basically, Wittgenstein’s message to the world was, “If you can’t express something logically, don’t bother thinking about it.” Europeans seeking answers or explanations for the recent tragic events of the wars found no reassurance in Wittgenstein.

In many ways, the existential thought of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) proved just as disturbing. The French existentialist denied the existence of God and said that man just appeared. Once here, man is on his own. As a free being, a man has no choice but to act, to do something. What each man does provides meaning and definition for his life, thus each man defines his own existence; the idea that man’s existence should be defined or guided by religion or morality is nonsense.

Would You Believe?

The desperate times during and following the wars also led to the revival of Christian thought, led by such thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth.

However, existentialists did argue that man could overcome hardships by acting. The catch was that man acted on his own.

New Physics

Just as the foundations of what humans believed about their world changed after the Scientific Revolution and the scientific advancements of the late nineteenth century, things changed again in the early twentieth century. The most unsettling scientific ideas that emerged in the early 1900s dealt with the atom, the basic building block of the world.

Until the 1900s, scientists believed that the atom was a stable piece of matter that was unbreakable and unshakable. However, the German scientist Max Plank (1858-1947) brought that into question when he invented modern quantum physics. Another German scientist, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), dealt a serious blow to science with his theory of special relativity. According to his theory, both space and time are relative, with the only constant through both space and time being the speed of light. Einstein went on to do further work related to what

Would You Believe?

Hard sciences weren't the only sciences to experience upheaval. Sigmund Freud's psychology, based on psychoanalysis, maintained that human behavior was irrational and based on sexual and other desires that remained in constant conflict with rational thought.

is now known as quantum physics. In the 1930s, after Adolf Hitler assumed power (see Chapter 21), Einstein wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to explore atomic energy as a possible means of military technology. Einstein, greatly fearing the Nazis, believed Hitler would work toward that end with his Nazi physicists.

Further unsettling ideas about the basic building blocks of the world came out in 1919, when Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) proved that atoms could be broken, or split. In the years that followed, scientists even discovered the existence of subatomic particles. Once again, all that man knew about science turned out to be incomplete data. Interestingly, the knowledge of atom-splitting coincided with the rise of the dictators against whom the threat of atomic weapons eventually would be used.

Art and Literature Break All the Rules

The camera single-handedly changed the world of art in the late nineteenth century. For centuries, artists strived to make their paintings as lifelike as possible. With the photograph, though, artists no longer had a need to paint a picture exactly as it might appear in real life. Beginning with the impressionists like Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), paintings took on a different form. Rather than faithfully recreating scenes, these artists painted works that left the impression or feeling of a scene. The expressionists like Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), and the postimpressionists like Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), continued to push the edge of the artistic envelope. They placed emphasis on ideals like form, color, shapes, and lines, and painted those things rather than what the eye perceives an object to look like.

The artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped blaze a trail that made a real departure from tradition. The artists who spearheaded the artistic movements known as Dadaism and surrealism were anything but traditional. These movements sought specifically to challenge all rules and authority in the art world. They painted dreamlike scenes, and scenes that seemingly had no basis in reality. They fashioned nonsensical structures and presented as art many things that contemporaries considered obscene. The music of the early twentieth century, in many ways, challenged authority, too. Atonal music and risque themes shocked audiences who had grown accustomed to classical music. Two of the most significant atonal composers were Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, both of Vienna.

The literature of the early years of the century embraced unconventional thought as much as the art did. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (1882-1941) used stream-of-consciousness novels to explore the inner workings of the human psyche.

In such works, random thoughts come and go and the reader is left to put all the pieces together collectively rather than in a linear fashion. Many writers, like their contemporary philosophers, rejected notions of progress in the wake of the wars. Writers such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and George Orwell (1903-1950) predicted futures that were dark and disturbing. Little did they know that their writings would be so prophetic.

The Great Depression

The first years after the end of the First World War were characterized by obvious economic hardships as well as agricultural difficulties often directly caused by the destruction of the war. As the economic situation picked up for some, the desire to live life to the fullest in the wake of the war led to unwise borrowing and spending habits. Millions of people in Europe and the United States extended their credit beyond safe limits. To make matters worse, millions of people around the world borrowed money to speculate on stocks. In other words, they invested borrowed money, money that would have to be paid back one day. As investors poured more and more money into stocks and other investments, stock prices soared to unrealistically high levels. As a result, the stock market in America crashed in 1929 and left speculators and investors with nothing except debt.

As the American economy started down the slippery slope toward disaster, banks called in loans from everyone. American banks also called in loans from foreign countries that had borrowed for the war or for the rebuilding process after the war. The foreign nations, though, could scarcely afford the interest on those loans. With the supply of money seemingly disappearing, consumers everywhere held on to their cash and made runs on banks. Spending dropped, so producers dumped as many goods as they could, thus causing prices to fall dramatically. As demand slowed, so did production. As production slowed, so did employment. Unemployment skyrocketed. Then, in 1931, the leading bank in Europe, the Credit-Anstalt, collapsed. Britain and other leading countries took themselves off the gold standard and suddenly it was every man for himself.

The brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) recommended that countries spend their way out of the debt. He encouraged governments to create jobs to infuse money into the economies. Instead, governments reduced spending and held on to their cash, too. By the 1930s, some governments, such as America under President Franklin Roosevelt, began recovery programs like the New Deal. For most nations around the world, though, only World War II provided the economic stimulation necessary to climb out of the doldrums. It was against this economic backdrop that the strong leaders of the interwar years emerged.

The Least You Need to Know

When a Serb assassinated the Austrian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria, prompted by Germany, issued an ultimatum to Serbia, despite knowing that Russia would enter any war on Serbia’s side. Russia did, as did France, Britain, and Turkey. The Great War had begun.

The war on the Western Front consisted mostly of trench warfare. Thousands of miles of mazelike trenches covered France and led to four years of virtual stalemate. War in the east featured more land and massive troop movements. Russia met with initial success but domestic problems drove it out of the war.

Russia experienced revolution and civil war in 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks won the fight to be leaders of Russia. At a high price, Russia pulled out of World War I.

America’s entry tipped the scales against the Central Powers. In 1919, the allies forced the Treaty of Versailles on Germany, which was made to make serious restrictions on its military and pay huge reparations in cash and land.

The war left Europe in a state of shock, bewilderment, and anxiety that manifested itself in the art, music, and literature of the time. The turn-of-the-century science and philosophy also left Europeans unsure about the world and the future.

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